Leaders who emerge from among employees can’t be friends with their former peers as they used to be. The terms of these friendships change and leaders must put some distance between themselves and their former peers for the sake of effective leadership.

Leadership can drive a wedge between friends. Some degree of distance between leaders and followers is desirable, but when a leader and a follower are friends outside of their business lives, friction and awkwardness can ensue, and the friendship can expire quickly.

Leadership coaching understands this conundrum. A leadership coach can help new leaders, emerging from among the employee ranks, to lead their former peers effectively and intelligently.


Leadership and friendship are not fully compatible. 

Why Some Distance Is Desirable

The essence of intelligent leadership is to build meaningful relationships with employees and other stakeholders. Why can’t leaders be friends with their employees? Meaningful relationships don’t fully coincide with the definition of friendship in the context of leadership coaching and intelligent leadership. Leaders can have meaningful relationships with their reports and not be their friends.

Friendship is on the same intimacy level as human relationships, thus exceeding what effective leadership requires. Due to its overly intimate and personal nature, friendship can erode the authority leaders must display. It can also lead to far-reaching friction in the workforce.

Perceived Favoritism

Friendship is exclusive. We only bestow it upon people we carefully select. If a leader is friends with an employee, their relationship differs significantly from the relationships the leader has with other employees. Inequality is poison to human communities.

When employees understand their leaders are friends with certain peers, a sense of favoritism, real or perceived, is inevitable. We all favor our friends, and human nature says leaders fall under this rule as well.

Perceptions of favoritism lead to resentment, hurt feelings, false accusations, and toxic team cultures.

The Inability to Take Corrective Action

Sometimes, leaders must make difficult decisions. They may have to sacrifice short-term interests of their employees to achieve long-term successes for their organizations. They must take corrective action against employees who fall out of line or fail to perform as expected.

When a leader is friends with an underachieving employee, effective corrective action becomes a delicate balancing act that can derail. Disciplining a friend is one of the more uncomfortable situations a leader can encounter.

If leaders take firm corrective action, they risk damaging the friendship. In some friendships, inequality between the parties is enough to breed resentment, even without the disruptive effects of corrective action.

If leaders are lenient with their friends, they become guilty of favoritism. This is a catch-22 situation new leaders don’t always navigate successfully.

Employees Don’t Need a Friend

At work, employees need effective managers and leaders. A friendly atmosphere and a culture that values respect are pluses, but leaders should be leaders and not friends to employees.

When a crisis strikes, people need someone who can:

  • Allay their fears
  • Motivate them
  • Provide relevant insights
  • Make tough choices
  • Tackle difficult challenges
  • Rise above the panic

Friendship is priceless. At work, people also need someone who can take them from where they are to where they need to be, both professionally and personally. Business coaching understands the significance of leader-employee distance and treats it as a requirement and sign of organizational functionality.

How Executive Coaching Can Help

Some new leaders want to distance themselves from former peers. Others, knowing what an emotionally tricky issue it is, ignore the concept of leader-employee distance. When you do nothing about it, this distance tends to appear and widen naturally.


Communication is key to bridging challenges and differences. 

Instituting a healthy leadership distance while preserving friendships isn’t easy, but it’s certainly possible.

Redefining Roles

When leaders emerge from the workforces of their organizations, their roles change. Leaders should talk about what role changes look like and how it impacts relationships with friends.

Clarifying the Differences

Employees may not be able or willing to discuss things with leaders they could discuss before when those leaders were peers. The dialog changes and the relationship becomes a different one. Leaders who can clarify how their relationships with friends will be different are more likely to preserve said relationships.

Executive coaching can help prepare new and experienced leaders to reshape and preserve their friendships with employees. Leadership is not “cool,” and it’s not about being everyone’s friend. It requires sacrifices, but it also provides opportunities to make real differences in return.


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